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January 2017

Summer Ops on Forest Service Land

Follow the screening criteria to smooth the way to approval.

Written by Rick Kahl | 0 comment
A panel discussion at SAM Summer Ops Camp in September focuses on how to implement the  Recreational Opportunities Act. Panelists (L to R): Sean Wetterberg, U.S. Forest Service; Dave Fields, Snowbird; Jamie Barrow, Vail Resorts; Roger Poirier, U.S. Forest Service. A panel discussion at SAM Summer Ops Camp in September focuses on how to implement the Recreational Opportunities Act. Panelists (L to R): Sean Wetterberg, U.S. Forest Service; Dave Fields, Snowbird; Jamie Barrow, Vail Resorts; Roger Poirier, U.S. Forest Service.

The Recreational Opportunities Act of 2011 allows winter resorts on Forest Service land to develop a range of off-season activities, within limits. The Act focuses development in human-powered and low-impact activities, and activities that are consistent with the overall uses of the National Forest. Still, the devil is often in the details, and the agency—along with many winter resorts—is still adjusting to the idea of expanded activities outside of ski season.

The Act aims to allow resorts to use their winter-related facilities in other seasons for a variety of recreational activities. To that end, it permits development of recreational facilities—so long as they are consistent with overall uses of the national Forest. However, the act is not intended to allow permittees to develop new support facilities, such as lifts or restaurants, that are primarily intended for non-winter use.

Navigating the Process

Wetterberg, notes that the agency has created “screening criteria” to help it identify what activities will or will not be permitted. These are outlined in the Forest Service Manual 2300, “Recreation, Wilderness, and Related Resource Management,” Chapter 2340, section 2343.14. This brief, four-page section includes an almost step-by-step guide that can ease the approval process.

Among its main points, the manual says that summer or year-round non-ski-related activities should:

• not change the primary purpose of the ski area

encourage outdoor recreation and enjoyment of nature and provide natural resource-based recreation

• be located within the portions of the ski area that are developed or that will be developed pursuant to the resort’s master plan

• not exceed the level of development for snow sports

• harmonize with the natural environment

• increase utilization of snow sports facilities such as parking lots, restaurants, and lifts, and not require extensive new support facilities.

The screening criteria specifically allows some activities— zip lines, mountain biking, disc golf, and ropes courses (i.e., aerial adventure parks)—and bans others—tennis, water parks and slides, swimming pools, golf courses, and amusement parks.

There are other factors that help foresters determine what is permissible and what isn’t, among them:

• can visitors engage with the natural setting, and be inspired to explore other NFS lands?

• is the visitors’s experience interdependent with attributes common in National Forest settings?

• can the resort use existing facilities to provide additional seasonal or year-round recreation?

• can the area’s master plan guide the placement and design of additional seasonal or year-round recreation facilities?

• do the proposed activities harmonize with the surrounding natural environment?

• are permit-area expansions based on snowsports-related needs, and not seasonal or year-round recreation?

The full portion of the Forest Service Manual governing the Act is available at Click on 2340, and scroll to 2343.14.

SE Group’s director of environmental services Travis Beck says the criteria, in effect, create “a form that winter resorts can populate and shows how each activity/proposal is consistent with the manual. It’s a pretty clear road map, we think, for areas and planners to look at and see what the FS wants out of the planning document and the process.” The White River National Forest in Colorado and SE Group have developed a template that resorts can use to guide an application.

“Come to us with plans that fit the unique niche that we’re offering,” says Wetterberg. “It shouldn’t look like Elitch Gardens; it should fit the environment.”

It’s Complicated

Still, as clear as the criteria are, Wetterberg cautions that there will be inconsistencies in reviewing proposals, due to differences in the individual forest plans across the U.S., and to “perceptions of what’s appropriate.” Local foresters in different regions may come to different conclusions about similar proposals, often based on the unique elements of their forest plans.

Beck cites the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and the White River National Forest in Colorado as examples of these differences. “The local forester in New Hampshire sees a different winter industry and summer industry than the forester in Colorado,” he says. “That’s just the way it is. There’s a lot of discretion. The decision-makers have to determine what’s appropriate on their national forest.”

Beck also notes that even within a given national forest, there can be differences from one resort to another. “What’s appropriate in Vail or Breckenridge might not be appropriate at Sunlight,” he says. “It’s all relative to how busy you are in winter. No one should expect a small fixed-grip area to get approval for a monster summer program. That’s not considered appropriate.”

Another complication: both resorts and the FS are undergoing a cultural shift. Although the FS has allowed limited activities in summer at ski areas for a long time, such as mountain biking, this was inconsistent with prior legislation. Some local foresters questioned that use. “We’ve done what we can to raise awareness in the agency to get people to come along,” Wetterberg says. “For some, it’s a pretty significant change from how we’ve dealt with recreation in the past.”

FS officials note that in the three-step approval process—master plan, NEPA process, and post-NEPA review—the post-NEPA review can take a little longer than for, say, a new lift. “Since this is all new, the Forest Service has to make decisions where there are more unknowns,” says White River Forest mountain sports program manager Roger Poirier. “We need a lot more information on the details of what’s being proposed.”

Adds, Beck, “There’s nothing new about environmental impacts. We’ve studied the resorts over and over. What the FS is saying is, “We’re going to focus a little less on that, and make sure from implementation standpoint, the new things are being done right.”

Of course, summer operations are also new for resorts. “Sometimes, resorts get in over their heads on in-house building for summer,” Beck says. “You really need the relevant expertise.”

Even resorts with summer experience on private land have had a few culture shocks. Snowbird, Utah, has been building and operating summer activities on the private land at the mountain’s base for many years. But, says marketing VP Dave Fields, “We want to offer bigger, more exciting activities, and need to expand onto Forest Service land.”

At SAM’s Summer Ops Camp in September, he recalled that Snowbird was surprised when the Forest Service asked to see the resort’s big-picture plan for summer expansion, and not just the portion that would be on the Forest. “We balked at first, but now we see the benefits,” he says.

In short: summer operations are new beasts for both resorts and the FS, and both are still getting used to the rules governing them.

So, how should resorts proceed?

“Reach out to colleagues who have gone through the process,” says Wetterberg. “Talk to other resorts first for lessons learned.” These include Vail, Breckenridge, Copper, Red River, N.M., and Snowmass. The pioneers have plowed the way, answering some of the basic questions, “So other resorts don’t have to go through the same things over and over,” says Beck. For example, he says, Aspen/Snowmass has taken the educational aspect of the Act most seriously, which makes Aspen a good resource.

Both Wetterberg and Beck advise resorts to heed the criteria in the Forest Service Manual, and to use the template developed by SE Group and the White River National Forest.

But first, says Beck, do your research. “As a planner, we advise clients to do some market analysis,” he says. “You don’t just say, ‘another ski area is seeing success with A, we should do the same thing.’ You have to understand the demographics and the context of the ski area. If you have a big drive-by market, that’s different from an area that doesn’t.”